I found a discarded copy of A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA in my gym locker in junior high. I wasn't familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin or her Earthsea tetralogy, but I thought the cover illustration of a ship crossing the ocean was childlike and evocative. I had discovered a few meaningful novels in the same manner, so I didn't think twice about reading A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. The novel's compelling cover art was indicative of the complexity of the fantasy world within. The most recent editions of the novel don't have the same illustration, but the story is just as satisfying today as it was years ago.
Frequently compared to J.R.R. Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS and C.S. Lewis' THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, Le Guin's Earthsea books are beloved as classics of science fiction and fantasy literature. But it's a mistake to limit the appeal of the series to science fiction or young adult fiction enthusiasts. All of the novels, and A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, in particular, are allegorical and will intrigue anyone interested in folklore, eastern philosophy and the quest for self-knowledge.
Growing up, Le Guin was heavily influenced by Lao Tzu's TAO TE CHING: She has written her own translation of the Chinese classic and its influence is deeply felt throughout the Earthsea tetralogy. In A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, Ged is an awkward, proud and impulsive young wizard who repeatedly uses his considerable powers recklessly. Ogion, his quietly powerful master and the wizards he encounters at school try to make Ged understand that the world exists in a delicate balance between good and evil, light and dark, yin and yang. When he uses his talents unwisely --- usually to humiliate his rivals --- he risks disrupting this balance and opening the door between the realms of the living and the dead. One of his masters explains why Ged must use his power sparingly:
"But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power...It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow...."
For fans of Star Wars, the wizards of Earthsea are like Jedi Knights and their power is very similar to "the Force." A limited number of men possess power (in varying degrees) and they must make sure that the equilibrium between light and dark is constantly maintained. Ged serves as an apprentice to Ogion so that he may learn the Hardic language of the wizards and the dragons that dwell on the fringes of Earthsea.
Ged's ability to control the world around him and transform himself comes from his knowledge of the Hardic tongue. Before the islands of Earthsea became civilized, it was populated by ancient creatures who spoke this language. All of the characters in the tetralogy have names they use on a daily basis (like Ogion) and ancient names that contain their true essence (Ged, for instance). To know the true name of a thing or person is to recognize it and have complete mastery over it. Ged's acts of wizardry usually involve finding these forgotten names and using them to protect himself or others from harm.
Like the other books in the Earthsea tetralogy, A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA is essentially a bildungsroman. Ged, powerful, but dangerously arrogant and reckless is forced to make a dramatic internal transformation. Attempting to humiliate a rival, Ged recites an ancient spell that unleashes an undead spirit that attacks him viciously. The undead creature is like Ged's doppelganger and literally follows him to the ends of the earth to inhabit his body. The creature is also a metaphor for the dark side of Ged's personality: Ged must acknowledge and embrace his weaknesses before he can conquer his double. When he appears in the second book of the series, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN, he has evolved completely.
Le Guin accomplishes a great deal in this relatively short novel. In only a few pages, she establishes Earthsea as a believable world filled with brilliantly realized characters. Ged's story is engrossing and meaningful on several levels. The other novels in this series, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN, THE FARTHEST SHORE and TEHANU enhance and elaborate on the fascinating world that Le Guin introduced in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA.
Reviewed by Allie Cahill on December 15, 2011